Font Size: A A A


Three Tales of Moral Corrosion

Masha Gessen
Consider three stories of alliances—or misalliances—unfolding in three different important institutions in this country. We ought to consider all three situations as distinct symptoms of the moral corrosion caused by the Trump presidency.

Susan Watts/NY Daily News via Getty Images; Steven Senne/AP Images

Chelsea Manning, 2017; Milo Yiannopoulos, 2017; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, Washington, D.C., 2017

Here is one way to take stock of the ways in which this year has changed us. Consider three stories of alliances—or misalliances—unfolding in three different important institutions in this country. One involves Congressional Democrats and the president in Washington; the second is a story of political troublemakers descending on Berkeley; and the third involves political actors welcomed and not welcomed by Harvard. These are stories of new alignments and battles over legitimacy. All three showcase shattered expectations, both institutional and personal, and represent new and profound failures of moral compasses.

“At the moment it’s the Donald, Chuck, and Nancy show,” chuckled Congressman Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, speaking at a luncheon in New York City last week. He said it as if it were a good thing, if a strange one; he added that things did need to get done. It’s been less than two weeks, and it’s not clear how much has been achieved—an agreement on the debt ceiling was followed, a week later, by mixed messages on DACA—but the spectacle of the Senate Democrats’ leader laughing with Trump and bragging to colleagues that the president likes him has grown almost familiar. The New York Times wasted no time in announcing that Trump had “swerved left” (whatever such an old-fashioned description of political direction may mean in the case of the president). The country got out the popcorn and settled on the couch to watch a season of jolly deal-making.

On a mostly different note, Chelsea Manning, the former soldier who spent seven years behind bars for leaking classified information, had her fellowship offer rescinded by Harvard. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who were meant to be Manning’s short-term classmates at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, still have their fellowships. Harvard’s decision was precipitated by a flurry of protests against Manning’s fellowship, including the withdrawal of the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, from a Harvard forum.

Let’s linger on this for a second: the head of the nation’s spy agency has pressured the country’s most prestigious private university into reversing an academic appointment. If any pressure was exerted on Harvard to withdraw its offer to Lewandowski, who has been accused of attacking a female reporter and was filmed grabbing a Trump rally protester by the collar, or to Spicer, who repeatedly lied to the American public as the president’s spokesman, it was unsuccessful. Nor, certainly, could any such pressure have come from quarters as powerful as the CIA, not even close. Any political figure who advocated that Harvard refuse an association with an open ruffian or a public liar would certainly be accused of attempting to stifle free speech.

Speaking of free speech, Milo Yiannopoulos, that gay firebrand of homophobia and misogyny, will be appearing at so-called free-speech events at Berkeley this week, with his allies Steve Bannon, Ann Coulter, and James Damore, the former Google employee who gained fame with his pseudoscientific memo on women in tech. The university, which has learned bitter lessons from its experiences with some of the same characters last year, has so far put up only bureaucratic objections to the events, claiming that the organizers failed to inform the administration of their plans in time.

Both observers and some of the participants seem to have had trouble parsing these affairs. On the one hand, it’s disturbing to see Democrats palling around with Trump and to hear Senator Schumer make light of the president’s mendacity. Schumer jovially explained that he had avoided a joint press appearance with the president for fear of having to contradict something Trump would say. On the other hand, isn’t it a good thing that Democratic politicians are getting the job done, keeping the country running and possibly hammering out a deal to help DACA recipients (after the president had just put them in jeopardy)?

On the one hand, it seems cruel, unfair, and unprincipled of Harvard to have rescinded its invitation to Manning. On the other hand, wasn’t the invitation Harvard’s to rescind? And wasn’t Manning convicted under the Espionage Act? Spicer and Lewandowski, after all, have not been convicted of any wrongdoing: doesn’t that give the lie to any claim that these two remaining Harvard fellows are somehow worse than the purged Manning?

As for Yiannopoulos, Bannon, and Coulter, they are, on the one hand, distasteful. But on the other, are their Berkeley plans not protected by the First Amendment?

And then there is the issue of free speech, a particularly American accomplishment and a peculiarly American problem. Otherwise sane Americans routinely argue that the regulation of speech is incompatible with liberal democracy. This is a patently untrue statement. To take just one example, virtually all member countries of the European Union have so-called memory laws, which outlaw certain statements about history. A great many Americans are convinced that the right to free speech in this country is absolute, as though various American authorities did not police pornography, the portrayal of sex in movies, and the language used by broadcast media, to name just a few of the most obvious speech-regulation practices that Americans encounter every day.


But what if the commonly proposed ways to think about these predicaments aren’t up to the task—if focusing on the deal-making part of government is a poor way to approach the emergent Trump-Schumer-Pelosi alliance, if court sentences shed little light on the story of Harvard and its fellows, and if free-speech absolutism gets us nowhere in thinking about the events at Berkeley?

Instead, we ought perhaps to consider all three situations as distinct symptoms of the moral corrosion caused by the Trump presidency.

If Trump weren’t president, Mike Pompeo, a Tea Partier viewed with great suspicion in Washington, would not be the head of the CIA. It is, of course, possible that a CIA director appointed by a different president would have attempted to pressure Harvard into withdrawing the invitation, though it is likely that a more conventional spymaster would have shrunk from such a confrontational political gesture. It also seems likely that a White House run by a different president would have viewed a conflict between the CIA director and Harvard as inappropriate.

Virtually certain, though, is that under a different president, Harvard would not have had occasion to choose as fellows a man known to the nation only as a pitiful and inept liar and another who is known primarily as a thug. In other words, even if Manning were disinvited in a non-Trumpian world, it would not have occurred against the background of invitations extended to Spicer and Lewandowski. It is this contrast, the fact that these two men are legitimized while Manning is not, that gives us a measure of Trump-era corrosion.

Some of the same power dynamics are at work at Berkeley. Bannon’s recent position in the White House elevates the stature of the conflict. If Berkeley manages to use bureaucratic means to stop the forum, it will be accused of stifling free speech. But if Berkeley were to do the unthinkable and challenge the idea that the right to free speech protects the right to spout lies and hate on a state university campus, then Berkeley would be going up not only against the traditional simplistic understanding of the First Amendment, but also against speech that has already been awarded legitimacy in American politics. It is that much harder—indeed, downright impossible—to argue that speech that is appropriate in the White House should be off limits at Berkeley.

When Schumer made light of Trump’s propensity for statements that require corrections or objections, he was also referring to the kinds of statements that have been legitimized by the very fact of the Trump presidency. The senator might have been referring only to the possibility that Trump would portray their meeting or their deal in an unexpected way. But he was talking about a president who, just in the last couple of days, has reiterated his view that the white supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville and counter-protesters were morally equivalent; who used a terrorist attack in London to try to drum up support for his idiotic and hateful Muslim travel ban; who distributed a GIF that purported to show him driving a golf ball that struck Hillary Clinton on the back; and who, of course, denied that he and the Democrats had reached an agreement on DACA.

One might argue that lifting the debt ceiling and, especially, saving hundreds of thousands of Americans from deportation are such important goals that the means justify the ends. But let’s take note of the price of cutting deals with Trump. This is a price paid not by Schumer and Pelosi, but by the American public, which is reduced to delegating its elected officials to humor a deplorable liar and internet troll.

And then, when the recently departed White House press secretary appears at the Emmys, we all join the senator in having a chuckle at the spectacle of presidential mendacity. This is a minor symptom compared to the debacles at Harvard and Berkeley, which are also minor compared to the “Donald, Chuck, and Nancy, show,” but all stem from the same root: the loss of a moral compass. 

New York Review + Paris Review covers

Save $168 on an inspired pairing!

Get both The New York Review and The Paris Review at one low price.

Already a subscriber? Sign in

© 1963-2024 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.